Fionnbharr Rodgers, Contributor.
‘In the coming weeks, a Bill will be brought before the House of Commons to provide that the UK remain in the customs union,’ wrote Fianna Fáil councillor Malcolm Byrne from Co. Wexford in a letter to St. Patrick’s weekend edition of The Irish Times. Mr. Byrne made the case that were Sinn Féin to abandon the century old policy of abstaining from their seats in Westminster, between now and then, that there may be enough of a majority which could defeat the government.
This was a concurrent argument to an opinion piece published the Friday before in the same newspaper by Noel Whelan, which was entitled ‘Sinn Féin must end abstentionism to achieve a United Ireland.’
It is understandable why some people would see the British government propped up in Parliament by the DUP and therefore see Sinn Féin as the natural antidote to the worst excesses of the actions of the former.
Sinn Féin has not been silent on the issue for its own part, and on the 6th March Paul Maskey, MP for West Belfast, wrote an article in the The Guardian defending the continued refusal of his party to ‘validate British sovereignty over the island of Ireland by sitting in the Parliament of Westminster.’ Maskey wrote that Sinn Féin were not British MPs, but Irish MPs and that our ‘difficult and troubled history tells us, the interests of the Irish people have rarely been the concern of the British government or parliament.’
It is true that the height of knowledge of Ireland, its people and their affairs, among English people is and has largely been limited to a few a lines of Yeats’ poetry, the fact that Connemara is supposed to be lovely in the spring, and of course Father Ted, and there is very little interest in expanding this lexicon. Many unionists would probably accept this analysis, as there is a significant feeling of exceptionalism within Northern Ireland. The sentiment described above was best summarised by the late Ronan Fanning, a Professor of Modern History at UCD, who wrote in his book Fatal Path, the first World War gave Hebert Asquith the perfect excuse to do ‘what he had always wanted to do about Ireland: nothing.’
Maskey’s position, and that of Sinn Féin more broadly, is understandable and it is to be expected. However, it does ignore certain truths, which undermines the overall integrity of the argument presented. The first is the disservice which is done to the long and storied history of the ingenuity of the Irish people in running political rings around the English. Ireland today, north and south, nationalist or otherwise, owes much to the legacy of Daniel O’Connell, or The Liberator as he was known.
When O’Connell was first elected as MP for Clare in 1828 he was not even given the option of abstaining as, being a Catholic, he was barred from taking his seat. It was O’Connell’s own skill as a politician which forced through the Catholic Relief Act in 1829. He was such a formidable speaker that Charles Dickens, a parliamentary sketch writer at the time, commented on more than one occasion he was forced to put down his pencil as O’Connell’s words had moved him to tears.
Continuing the tradition of constitutional nationalism was Charles Stewart Parnell, and John Redmond whose actions in the House of Commons ‘talking out’ the Irish coercion acts are the reason why the rules on filibustering in Westminster are so strict today. The lack of recognition which is afforded to the Irishmen and Irishwomen, particularly nationalists, who did not boycott the British state is also seen in the unwillingness to commemorate the Irish soldiers who fought in a British uniform in the First World War.
The second problem with Maskey’s article was that it glossed over large parts and salient details of the history of abstentionism itself. The tradition comes from the original Sinn Féin movement which was founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith who, similar to O’Connell, wished to have an autonomous Irish Parliament tied to Britain by the golden link of the crown. However, the party then split at its Ard Fheis in 1970 over the issue of taking their seats in Dáil Éireann. The split was between the Officials who were against, and the Provisionals who were for and subsequently became the party we know today; both factions were colloquially referred to as the ‘stickies’ and the ‘pinnies,’ respectively, due to their preferred manner of affixing the Easter Lily to their lapel.
This was the first move that Sinn Féin took away from the rifle and towards the ballot box; the second was by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Sinn Féin subsequently took their seats in both the Assembly and the Executive, recognising the existence of Northern Ireland by governing it. One does not have to agree with Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, to recognise it as reality.
As far as Westminster is concerned, Sinn Féin holds offices in Parliament Square, the next logical step, with all of the above in mind, is for Sinn Féin to take their seats. The only question is when, or perhaps which issue, will be the turning point. It should be noted that Sinn Féin is a fundamentally practical party with a ten year plan.